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Coming Into Focus: Thirty Years Of Asian American Independent Filmmaking

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With the current fascination with all-things-Asian in the popular culture but given the inherently fickle nature of fads, it is worth recalling that the art of independent Asian American film evolved from the political struggles and countercultural practices that attended the new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Anti-war protest against the US-sponsored war in Southeast Asia, conflict over civil rights issues, widespread student revolt, and the crisis of political legitimacy influenced the early independent media work of Asian American activist-artists. A self-consciously Asian American filmmaking practice began to emerge along with other expressive forms such as fiction, journalism, music, theater, dance and criticism.

To support the ambitions of those who sought to subvert the condescension and anti-Asian racism characteristic of corporate film and television industrial product, community-based institutions were established to provide material support for independent media workers. Founded in Los Angeles during the summer of 1969, Visual Communications gave rise to the technically crude but grippingly powerful documentaries by Robert A. Nakamura, MANZANAR (1971) and Eddie Wong, WONG SINSAANG (1971). In 1976, Asian CineVision (ACV) came into being through the efforts of Peter Chow, Christine Choy and Tsui Hark. ACV began by training New York Chinatown residents in video production, but later shifted emphasis to the exhibition and distribution of independent films. The Asian American International Film Festival sponsored by ACV has served as a showcase for such filmmakers as Wayne Wang and Ang Lee, both of whom went on to achieve crossover success.

In San Francisco, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA) was founded in 1980 with funds provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). In addition to its mandate to develop original programming for broadcast on public television, NAATA has sponsored the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) since 1983. The SFIAAFF offers an occasion for critics, scholars and cinephiles to view new work and serves as a valuable forum for filmmakers, producers, distributors, educators, curators and arts administrators to share their experiences around a common endeavor.

In contrast to earlier examples of Asian American filmmaking, current work reflects the material consequences of post-1965 Asian immigration to the US subsequent to the revision of discriminatory federal government provisions that had favored Europeans. Feature films, such as DISORIENTED (Francisco Aliwalas), SHOPPING FOR FANGS (Quentin Lee and Justin Lin) and YELLOW (Chris Chan Lee), are dramatic renderings of a postmodern global cosmopolitan youth culture where issues of identity nevertheless remain. Explorations into identity have been integral to Asian American film since its inception. Because Asian American history is marked by exclusion, relocation, deportation and containment, the ceaseless self-interrogation of identity is neither a sterile intellectual exercise nor is it simply a salve for hurt feelings. Both politically and at the level of individual psychology, the question of identity remains one of the salient themes of Asian American films out of sheer social survival.

The marked change in population size, ethnic composition and social class origins of contemporary Asian America has led to a broadened spectrum of films that embody the new demographic realities. In addition to the post-1965 large-scale immigration of Asians from countries with significant military and economic ties with the US, well over one million refugees and immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos now make their home in the neo-imperial core society. By putting camcorders in the hands of underrepresented Southeast Asian Americans to document their own lives, works like A.K.A. DON BONUS (Spencer Nakasako/Sokly Ny), KELLY LOVES TONY (Spencer Nakasako) and THE SEVEN OF US (Sarah Diep) represent both a return to, and an extension of the guerrilla filmmaking tradition. Their immediacy, social realism and lack of pretense offset the growing number of technically slick audition reels produced by moneyed film school graduates. As the class divide widens further within the Asian American community, it will remain important for the independent cinema movement to help ensure access for those whose social world is otherwise consigned to the margins.

That the identity-claims of gays and lesbians as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement have been validated by corporate media was demonstrated by the recent furor over the virtual exclusion of non-White minorities during the 1999 network television season. It was reported that gay and lesbian characters far outnumbered people of color on network programs. Similarly, mainstream films with homoerotic themes are rarely greeted with derision anymore except by the religious right or secular ultra-conservative groups. Once more, the independent film movement has taken the lead in exposing the hypocrisies of closeted sexuality in mainstream media and by helping to reform homophobic attitudes and behavior in the larger society. Whether ideologically explicit or not, films screened at previous SFIAAFF events such as LOVE SONG FOR PERSIS K. (David Dasharath Kalal), CUNANAN'S CONUNDRUM (Stuart Gaffney), THERE IS NO NAME FOR THIS (Ming-Yeun S. Ma), SEASON OF THE BOYS (Ho Tam) and UNTITLED (MY MAMA) (Lynne Chan) put forth an aggressive counter-discourse that forces group recognition within both the dominant public sphere and the respective ethnic communities that either devalue or disavow Asian American queer identities.




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